Call me hopelessly nostalgic, but Halloween was once the stuff of a Norman Rockwell illustration: wide-eyed, giggling children appearing out of the late October night to amuse and amaze their neighbors with their costumes — mummies, pirates, hobos, baseball players, cowgirls, Indians, ballerinas — which had been cobbled together by their parents from items found in the attic or basement. A glowing jack-o’-lantern in the window or on the front steps signaled that there were treats to be had for little ghosts and goblins. Imaginations afire, the tiny tricksters might even spy a witch astride her broomstick, floating across the darkening sky.
No more. Over time, Halloween has been hijacked by grown-ups who have transformed a sweet, homespun holiday into a $7 billion retail monster that, to my way of thinking, isn’t much fun anymore.
Instead of hand-carved pumpkins and a jolly skeleton hanging on the lamppost for decoration, “Halloweeniacs” now compete to assemble the most elaborate front-yard House of Horrors imaginable, complete with ghoulish soundtracks, dry-ice machines, animatronics, and blinding LED displays that can be seen from orbiting satellites. And what is with those hideous inflatable spiders?
Kiddie costumes are no longer clever and original, but banal and predictable: Disney or Marvel movie characters cranked out by the millions in China and purchased by time-challenged parents at Wal-Mart or Target. (According to the National Retail Federation, Americans spent an estimated $1 billion on kids’ costumes and $1.2 billion on adult costumes in 2013. In another NRF poll, only 18.9 percent of respondents said that they would make their own costumes.) I don’t know about you, but it’s getting darned hard to ooh and aah over yet another Spider-Man or Princess Ariel.
And forget dropping a tangerine or an apple — or, God forbid, a home-baked chocolate chip cookie — into little Ethan’s or Emma’s goody bag. Unwrapped treats are now verboten, thanks to spooked parents who buy into urban myths of poisoned candies and razor blades and needles hidden in fruit. These legends have been repeatedly debunked (in several isolated instances, it turned out that older kids or family members put the razors or needles in the fruit themselves in order to attract attention), but they endure nevertheless. In any event, it’s all rather insulting and paranoid. What do my neighbors think I am?
Which leaves you with doling out packaged candy from mass-market chocolatiers like Mars or Hershey, which is not only expensive but also a balancing act. On the one hand, you don’t want to load the kids up with too much sugar; on the other, you do want to give them what they came for. Yes, you could opt for boxes of raisins or packages of trail mix. But have you ever seen the look on little faces when you hand them a crunchy granola bar? Frightening.
Of course, this matters only if trick-or-treaters actually appear at your door. Nowadays, smothering parents keep the kids on a tight leash. Instead of happily roaming the neighborhood in chattering clusters, they are accompanied by a team of adults who assess the situation (could a pedophile or a mean dog be lurking in this house?) and give the kids permission to approach. And more and more, I’ve noticed, kids are carted off to Halloween parties where they mingle with cousins and other “safe” folks. Where’s the adventure in that?
But despite my gripes about modern Halloween, I’ll stock up on goodies and array a couple of pumpkins on the porch every year, hoping that enough little ones — and even a couple of not-so-little ones — will arrive to haul off the entire proffered holiday booty. (With my burgeoning waistline, the last thing I need are bags of leftover Reese’s Cups or Almond Joys haunting my fruit bowl.)
Then again, this year I may just turn off the lights and binge-watch The Living Dead. After all, the Christmas retail season begins the next day. Now that’s scary.